FOOD 101

Wrapped Up

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

No doubt your kitchen, like mine, has a shallow drawer just deep enough to hold those long boxes of wrap for the kitchen.

These rolled-sheet, pull-and-tear materials have their individual strengths and weaknesses, literally, that make them most suitable for specific tasks beyond serving as a temporary, disposable work surface.

You can line a cake pan with waxed paper, catch oven drips on aluminum foil, wrap leftovers in plastic film and bake fish in an envelope of parchment.

WAXED PAPER is a thin tissue paper infused with paraffin, a petroleum-derived product much like that in a (non-bees) wax candle, but more highly refined for Food and Drug Administration-approved food use. Chemically, it is a mixture of nontoxic saturated hydrocarbons (alkanes). If consumed, they would pass through the digestive tract undigested. As a matter of fact, a coating of food-grade paraffin is often used to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables and may even be added to melted chocolate to give the solidified product a glossy finish.

Thomas Edison is credited with first waxing paper to make it waterproof -- no doubt one of his more modest accomplishments. Today's leading brand, Reynolds Cut-Rite Wax Paper (manufactured, oddly enough, by a metals company), was so named in 1927 when Nicholas Marcalus invented the serrated-edge cutter now used on boxes of virtually all kitchen-roll products.

A circle or rectangle of waxed paper is perfect for lining a cake pan to ease removal of the cake. The wax will melt in the oven, but a little paraffin on a cake bottom never hurt anyone. Waxed paper can't take typical oven temperatures without scorching, however, unless it is completely covered with batter.

But there is a much better alternative for oven use. . . .

PARCHMENT Originally, parchment was the smoothed and dried skin of a sheep or goat, used for writing or painting. (Remember when a diploma was called a sheepskin?) In modern times, the term has been used for a paper that is hardened, strengthened and grease-proofed by being run quickly through a bath of concentrated sulfuric acid. The acid hydrolyzes the paper's cellulose and gels the surface fibers, which then mesh and stick together, closing the pores of the paper and waterproofing it.

More recently, "parchment" for kitchen use is likely to be a heavy paper coated with a silicone, which thoroughly waterproofs and grease-proofs it. Kitchen parchment paper is stronger, easier to cut and handle, and superior in almost all respects to waxed paper. It is nonstick and scorch-resistant at temperatures up to 400 or 500 degrees, depending on the brand, so it can be used, for example, to cover a pastry shell before loading it down with pie weights and baking it.

Parchment is sold as sheets, circles or rolls for lining pans, covering a braise, and notably for baking fish or vegetables en papillote -- wrapped in parchment. As the heated air in the package expands, the food cooks in a heady atmosphere of steam and aromas from its own juices.

But parchment is more expensive than waxed paper or aluminum foil, which is often substituted for parchment to use en papillote. Both waxed paper and parchment are safe for covering foods in the microwave oven.

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